Behind the Scenes: Working Large Group Plays

Behind the Scenes: Working large group plays with E.D.G.E. Youth Theatre

Case study: “Through Black Glass”

One of the challenges of being around for a decade is sometimes you have a huge cast. With production costs being as high as they are, this size of a group several times a year is essential for our survival. When this happens we deploy a lot of strategy to make sure the show goes well in every capacity. I thought parents might enjoy seeing some of that strategy laid out.

Create more roles.

When this script was originally written we had 26 characters. As enrollment picked up I contacted the playwright and said we would need a bigger cast. We added 8 new characters. Enrollment picked up again and we added 4 more characters. There is a point that you can’t keep adding scenes without really breaking apart the flow of the show. So we used double casting and role sharing. Both of these techniques maximize rolls but more importantly empower more actors to do great work.( I’ve shared my thoughts of how important double casting is in other essays.)

Make Large Groups accessible

One of the many reasons I was homeschooled was that I found navigating social situations difficult. Here at E.D.G.E. we have a goal of easing that transition. This is usually done by a mixture of social rules that can be carried outside of the theatre and show good civic behavior and games.

Rules like “No hate language” and “You my not really punch someone but stage combat with a willing partner is cool”. When we lay rules down it is extremely important to our staff that no one is antagonized for feeling that feelings are destructive but rather encouraged to make great decisions. But the rules are there to ensure that we don’t act out anxiety in a harmful way to other members of our cast.

Games enforce a thousand things in theatre. After all it’s called a play. We play about 12 different games at E.D.G.E. each with it’s own purpose. Some are really obvious, as in Freeze Dance. This game is simple game, usually played by Ms. Becky before class has even started. It allows for crazy creative movement and also re-enforces good listening. It allows there to be consequences for non listening in a goofy environment. Some games are an introduction to noise and chaos like Paper/Rock/ Scissors Championship. Using a simple game the player must deal with loss, support another and ride waves of rock concert sound. It ends with a group cheering one person’s name and giving them the spotlight

Make large groups powerful:

When doing group scenes we like to make them strong scenes. We really try to avoid them being static. We go for group movements that create striking storytelling. We really avoid actors as scenic units but rather as emotional instruments in a symphony of storytelling. We don’t want actors just “sitting” in a scene but rather emotionally invested or in-tune with the stakes of that scene. If you are playing “a wave” your wave has goals, needs and desires. Once that is established create something dynamic, with huge emotions and strong movements!

Make large groups small:

As we have done in many of our large group productions a very effective strategy is splitting the group up. Done in two ways:

Squads: Using responsible, experienced and respectful teenage team leaders we assign a crew of actors to watch out for, nourish, coach and just keep an eye on an assigned group of younger actors. These “pseudo assistant directors” help with lines, model good behavior and make sure the needs of their squad are being met. This show has 6 squads called “Courts”.

Split and Staff: Rather than try to block scenes with 8 kids while 32 kids watch (a technique that can be useful sometimes) we use our staff to work on scenes. Usually its three divisions, with Orion doing the larger scene and Becky and Rick taking smaller scenes while squad leaders run lines with their squads.

Pick and choose when you ask a group to “sit there and do nothing but watch”.

When show starts to run beginning to end, there comes a point where you must hold ground and watch the show unfold. This means actors waiting. As anyone knows, waiting is the hardest thing in the world. We look for a thousands things to do while we wait. We try to minimize the waiting with carrying on useful activities up to the scene before your scene in other rooms with our other staff but it can be extremely useful to stand and watch. Not only do you get to see the story you created but learn the craft from other fine actors.

Staff well and over staff:

In our productions we go for a 1 staff per every 8 actors. This production hits that number right on the head. Our staff really is there to coach the success of the child. We re-enforce, we diffuse, we distract, we challenge and sometimes we separate, negotiate and administer consequences. We can’t anticipate every problem but after a decade of this we are pretty good at it.

The future:

This fall we are deploying new strategies we are are super excited about.

Our fall production is all three Star Wars original trilogy done in Elizabethan language. It currently is being titled “Shakeswars”. We anticipate a healthy size crew. So we are splitting the show into three acts with each act being one of the movies. Each director will take an act. Ms. Becky will have A New Hope, Orion will have Empire Strikes Back and Mr. Rick will do Return of the Jedi. We will do full cast scenes like the Mos Eisly Cantina and the Endor battle but it’ll feel more like three cast unifying to do one epic story. Each movie/play will be about 35 minutes long, making for an evening of awesome theatre!

And Moving. We are too big for Pendulum. We will stay geographically close to the area but we need a space that’s not so squished and a stage that can hold our epicness. We love the neighborhood we are in but we need something just as safe – only alot bigger. (Cuz I have stilted puppets to make for Lion King Jrand I can’t walk a Giraffe in our current space.)

In summary

We are more interested in creating a space of creativity, socialization and vitality than “the play”. The play binds all of these elements but it is a means to an end. The end is to create a community that recognizes energy, individuality, creativity and play. We set out each session to do the impossible. Each one of us mighty.